Rural electrification schemes must meet native preferences

Filepic of longhouse folk enjoying their favourite tv programme.

KUCHING: Community engagement is important to ensure that rural electrification schemes can meet the preferences and aspirations of indigenous communities in Sarawak.

A recent study by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) and Cambridge University in the remote Penan villages of Long Lamai and Long Kerong found that there was a strong preference for a community-based model, whereby the provision of electricity would be operated and maintained by the communities themselves.

Interestingly, this preference changed to a utility-based operator among villagers who had personal experience of using electricity for income generation purposes.

Cambridge University research fellow Dr Terry van Gevelt, who presented the findings at a forum on electricity access for Sarawak’s indigenous communities here, said both models had different policy implications for stakeholders.

For instance, he said a community-based model would be difficult to reconcile with the provision of street lighting or using electricity for income generation, while the utility-based model might not meet the community’s specific development pathway.

“This demonstrates the need to invest time and resources in engaging with communities. It shows that a more flexible approach may be needed in providing electricity to remote communities.

“Stakeholders can also engage communities to see how electricity can be used productively to generate direct economic benefits,” he said.

Assoc Prof Dr Poline Bala from Unimas’ Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations proposed an ethnodevelopment approach to help ensure that energy supply would bring about development in line with the aspirations of indigenous communities.

She said this approach emphasised community participation while taking into consideration the values, cultures and concerns of specific indigenous communities.

“Each community has different concerns and values. The Penans, for example, are egalitarian in their decision making whereas among the Kelabit, the chief’s word is important.

“This has a bearing on the approach we take in our projects. We need to take the indigenous people’s needs and diversity into consideration,” she said.

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